Youíve seen them. So have I. Tattered ghosts of anemic anonymity, they haunt most major U.S. cities. Nameless, faceless. Suspect. Disdained. Best kept at armís length.
I used to understand "The Homeless." Or thought I did. I sympathized with their plight, even donated money to charitable agencies to help. But did I ever get close enough to find out Who they are, and Why? Of course not. I didnít need to. After all, anyone whoís struggling, out of work, "less fortunate", down on their luck, "low income", or "economically disadvantaged"-- my favorite euphemism--is obviously that way through some fault of their own. I mean, no one has a valid reason for being "homeless" in The Land of Opportunity, right?
My prejudice toward the "anonymous" of our society dictated that The Homeless were that way because they couldnít function in society or chose not to. To me, "The Homeless" were all drug addicts, alcoholics, mentally ill, or part of The Great Unwashed who were all just too doggone lazy and shiftless to "get a decent job" and support themselves.
My bias brimmed with derisive disdain, conveniently equating "The Homeless with deadbeats, low lifes, losers and leftovers. The flotsam and jetsam of society. That was my prejudice. Until "The Homeless" was me. More specifically, me, my husband and our four boys.
Our odyssey began in June 2002. The house we were renting in California was owned by missionary friends. Their overseas assignment complete, the Simpsons returned to the States to reoccupy their home. Which meant we had to move. My husband had been recently laid off. Although he has a college degree and an advanced degree, months of Herculean job-search efforts in every field under the sun hadnít born fruit.
Thus unable to afford the pricy southern California housing market, I turned to my best friend in Texas. Ben and Sue (not their real names) offered glowing reports of booming job markets and hire-hungry employers. Nauseated at the thought of ripping my family out of the only neighborhood theyíd ever known and moving kit and caboodle across 1,700 miles to another state, I hesitated. However, Ben and Sue offered to share their home with us "until you can get your own place." They likewise assured us that teachers were "in short supply" and "in great demand" in the Lone Star State. "Besides," Ben affirmed, "You only need a B.A. degree to teach here. Texas doesnít require a teaching credential."
Texas school districts were reportedly eager to hire people with "teaching experience" like my husband, Chris, who had taught elementary schoolchildren as a Field Naturalist with the Orange County Department of Education. Until budget cuts and downsizing resulted in a pink slip.
With housing secured and jobs reportedly plentiful we relocated to Texas, fully expecting to build a new career and a new life in the Lone Star State. Our expectations were soon shattered like a windshield under a baseball bat.
To our collective dismay we learned that Texas public schools not only required formal teaching credentials, but Chris would need years of additional college courses to boot to teach in the Lone Star State. Misinformed or misled, the bottom line was no teaching job any time in the near future.
With that job market slammed shut, Chris pursued other possibilities. But not before our friends changed their minds about housing. Ben and Sue abruptly withdrew their housing offer on a stifling September morning ten weeks after our Texas arrival.
We had barely unpacked. Our move to Texas had wiped out our meager savings. In a new state with no job, no income, and no long-terms contacts, now we had no home. Where could we go? How? Thin as an onion skin, our options ranged from bleak to grim. So we prayed. Hard.
We contacted every individual and organization we could think of. No one could accommodate a family of six. I was stunned by the chilly reception, suspicion and callous disregard most evidenced for our plight.
"You must have brought this on yourselves" was the unspoken accusation. We hadnít. But no one listened. It occurred to me that for many, tossing accusations is more convenient than meeting a legitimate need.
The prevailing attitude seemed to be, "Iíve got mine, how come you donít have yours? Whatís wrong with you?" Adding insult to injury, the clear implication was that our struggle was of our own making, an invalid observation that heaped frustration upon desperation. Blaming us for our difficulties, though nonsensical, was easy: find fault with someone whoís struggling, even if you have to invent it, and you are thereby absolved from taking any personal action to help. How convenient. How myopic. How absurd.
Chris called his estranged brother and outlined our predicament.
"How many rooms do you need?" Don asked from the cell phone inside his long-haul Peterbilt cab.
"Two or three" Chris sighed, steeling himself for another rejection.
"Well, if you can make it to Washington, you can live with us. We have two extra rooms that we never use, and weíre out on the road most of the time." We needed housing. Don and his wife needed someone to keep any eye on the place while they were on the road. It made sense. It was also the only door that opened.
We bailed out of Texas on September 6. Seven states, eight days and about 2,300 miles later, we arrived at our new "home." Road weary, bewildered and exhausted, my four boys tumbled into an empty bedroom and slept for 13 hours. We were thankful for a roof over our heads, even if it wasnít ours. And I began to shed some of my freeze-dried, cellophane-wrapped prejudices about "The Homeless."
For example, Iím learning to give folks the benefit of the doubt. Another chance. To fight the comfortable, knee-jerk prejudice that automatically classifies "The Homeless" as dirty, shiftless, slothful, mentally ill, or criminal. Downright dangerous. Stupid, unethical, irresponsible, unqualified, uneducated, antagonistic, greedy, or gold bricks. This may be true in some cases. But not all.
Well-educated and over 40, my husband is routinely passed over for younger job candidates with lesser credentials. Weíve discovered first-hand that when it comes to hiring, age, non-minority status and "over-qualified" are the kiss of death. So he works like a Trojan at a part-time job outside his field because itís the only work he can find in a depressed local economy. His income is better than none at all, but itís not enough for us to get our own place.
Meanwhile, I homeschool our boys while Chris aggressively pursues leads for something better. Nothing has broken loose yet. Why? I donít know. Itís certainly not for lack of trying, as is frequently and unfairly intimated by others--usually the ones with palatial homes and fat bank accounts. The only *explanation* I can offer is the one an elderly friend once provided: "Perhaps God is allowing you to go through tough times to give others the opportunity to minister."
Iíve thought about that as the threads of my own socio-economic prejudices have unraveled. Especially at Christmastime. Let me explain.
You can imagine how two cross-country moves in three months wiped out our bank account. You may also probably understand how two involuntary re-locations wreaked havoc with my husbandís job search efforts. With Christmas 2002 just around the corner, money was tight, bills piled high, and hope a snickering stranger.
A "traditional Christmas"óthe kind so often pictured in Currier & Ives cards and holiday reruns--was out of the question for me and my family. My boys eagerly anticipated the holiday, but I dreaded the approach of December. I put off flipping the calendar as long as I could. By the second week in December, however, I knew what I had to do.
My oldest son hid his disappointment behind a painful grimace as I explained, "Dad and I canít buy anything for Christmas this year. We would if we could. But thereís no money" I sighed, trying to gently lower his 11 year-old expectations. I donít know who was more frustrated or dejected--Daniel or me.
Sniffles and wet eyes came from Nathan, age 10, as he grappled with the grim reality of too much month at the end of the money--even at Christmas. Sammy, age 7, blinked back tears as Josiah, age three, was perhaps too young to fully understand.
It was more than I could bear. I comforted my boys as best I could, then dashed outside into the frosty backyard and poured out my heart to the King of Christmas.
"Lord, You have always provided for our needs. I know that Christmas gifts arenít exactly a `need,í but Iím not asking for myself. Iím just asking You to please, PLEASE find some way to supply Christmas for my boys. Youíre all I have."
It was true. God had taken care of us in the past. But this year was different. What would He do now? Would anyone see "The Homeless" as an opportunity to minister? I had my doubts. Mountains of them. Tender grace climbed them all.
The doorbell rang on December 21. I opened the door to four middle-aged ladies. Decked out in red Santa caps and jingle bells, they were wreathed in smiles. Odd. The ladies didn't look like angels. In fact, there was nary a robe nor a harp between them. Not even a rusty halo.
"Kristine?" a silver-haired grandma type inquired. I nodded tentatively, not recognizing a soul.
"Weíre from TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly)" Pat began, indicating her grinning companions. "JoAnne is one of our members. She played her guitar at your church last week. She met you in the kitchen and heard your story. We planned on adopting just one family this Christmas, but our members gave so generously that we had enough gifts for two families. We didnít know who else to choose until JoAnne mentioned you" Pat explained, blue eyes twinkling. "So we brought over a few things for you and your boys. Hope you donít mind."
I opened the door, speechless.
"A few things" turned out to be enough gift-wrapped presents to outfit the entire Third Army. Ditto the new clothes, Wal-Mart gift cards, school supplies, and winter gear. Not to mention enough groceries to feed a small country--or four growing boys. The TOPS ladies also brought four felt stockings bulging with age-appropriate gifts for each of my babies.
Peals of delight pierced the living room on Christmas morning. "Can we fix it? Yes we can!" Josiah chanted, prancing around the house with his new Bob the Builder toys. Daniel dashed outside to dribble his new basketball. Nathan tossed his new football to Sammy, who was deeply engrossed in his latest Lite Brite magnum opus.
The TOPS ladiesótotal strangers, allóhadnít seen us as nameless, anonymous phantoms without our own home. They chose to view us an "opportunity to minister." They overcame societal prejudice with generosity, splashing kindness over our thirsty souls like cool water in a parched and weary land.
As for me, my experience has me donating clothing and blankets to the local rescue mission when I can and helping my kids collect canned goods and sundry items for a womenís shelter. At Christmastime my boys and I never pass a Salvation Army bell ringer without contributing to their red kettle. True, itís only pennies and nickels, but itís a start, right?
Perhaps more importantly, Iím now convinced that "The Homeless" occupy a special place in Godís heart. Why? Because Iíve seen it myself. Because the King of Christmas, whose cradle was a feeding trough, knows what itís like to lack a roof over His head. Homeless once Himself, He has a special love, a tender grace for those whose only Home is His.